Written by: Alison King

Cindy Ishoy reflects on 50 years of dressage in Canada.

Thumbnail for Flying Changes

Flashback to 1968: The first Big Mac went on sale. The Boeing 747 jumbo jet made its maiden flight. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. And in Canada, the sport of dressage was just beginning to take root. Much has changed in Canada’s dressage landscape over the past 50 years. There have been triumphant moments of national pride, along with plenty of challenges and setbacks. And from the late 1960s to today, Cindy Ishoy has played a role in nearly every pivotal moment. Horse Sport caught up with the four-time Olympian to discuss the past, present, and future of dressage in Canada.

“In those early years, dressage was not a popular equestrian discipline here,” Ishoy recounts. “I first discovered the sport while living in Germany as child, and knew when my father was transferred back to Canada in 1965 it was what I wanted to keep doing here.”

There were few options for riders who wanted to pursue serious training in Canada. In 1964, Christilot Boylen and Inez Fischer-Credo became the first Canadians to compete in dressage at the Olympics. Ishoy accredits Boylen with being a primary influence on the sport throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s as a competitor, trainer, competition organizer and the founder of CADORA (the Canadian Amateur Dressage Owners and Riders Association).

The Golden Years of Dressage in Canada

By the mid-1980s, Canadian dressage had not only taken root, but blossomed. This time that Ishoy describes as a “golden era” for the sport was highlighted by the 1986 World Championships held in Cedar Valley, Ontario – the first time the championship was held outside of Europe – and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, where the Canadian team earned the bronze medal and Ishoy finished fourth individually.

“Boy, those were fun years!” she recalls. “What an amazing opportunity to be part of that time. We had a wonderful group of talented Canadian dressage riders: my ’88 Olympic teammates Gina Smith, Eva-Marie Pracht and Ashley Holzer; other top Ontario riders like Bonny Bonnello, Nancy Maclachlan and Lorraine Stubbs; Inez Fischer-Credo and Zoltan Sztehlo out west; and Susan Fraser on the east coast. There are so many others and I don’t want to offend anyone by forgetting to name them! We were all very competitive and determined to win when showing against each other, but we were great friends too.

“Willi Shultheis was the head coach of the Canadian team for several of those years,” Ishoy continues. “We had a goal to make Canada competitive on the world stage and a systematic plan to get us there. We had the unwavering support of our national federation fully behind us. Expectations were extremely high, and we all worked exceptionally hard to meet them. It really was, I believe, the pinnacle of the sport in Canada.”

Horsemanship Matters

Ishoy notes a lot of positive changes in the sport since those days, including more quality horses, widespread opportunities for coaching and training, more opportunities for Canadian riders to compete at home and internationally, and access to experts from around the world via the internet. However, she also notes several key areas where she thinks Canadian dressage has considerable room for improvement.

“Things are very different for young dressage riders in Canada than they were in my day. In some areas, things are better now, but in other ways I’m not so sure,” she says. “Back then the expectations were much, much higher. I was a full-time working student by the age of 14 and had to fit school work and exams in around long, exhausting days at work. Horsemanship was a crucial part of learning to ride. And we rode everything; good horses, bad horses, old horses, young horses, rank horses, crazy horses. Most of us came up through Pony Club, which gave us that really solid foundation of horsemanship and horse care knowledge.

“I don’t see that very often with young riders any more, and even with many of the younger trainers and coaches out there now. They have never learned it themselves, so they aren’t passing on that mindset or knowledge to their students. I would love to see those skills be part of the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships. Our elite young riders should be tested on first aid, horse care, and horsemanship. They should be able to compete on a strange horse and switch mounts during the competition.”

A Double-Edged Sword

“Dressage instructors were few and far between in Canada when I was starting out,” Ishoy continues. “That’s one area where things have definitely improved and we have very talented riders and trainers in every province. But at the same time it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. We live in this crazy information age where anyone can claim to be an expert and post training videos online. We are easily distracted now and there’s a tendency to want to try the newest, latest ideas and switch from coach to coach, or try a different clinician every couple of months. I think we are suffering from a bit of information overload.

“What’s missing now is a system. One single, systematic training approach to the correct gymnastic development of the horse and teaching of the rider. Whether you agree with their specific systems or not, that’s the main reason why the Germans and the Dutch consistently lead the way at international championships year after year. They have clear goals as a nation, and a systematic training plan that starts with how beginner riders are introduced to the sport and how young horses are developed, and it continues all the way up to international grand prix competitors.

“In Canada, each of our top riders and trainers have their own system, or they implement some elements from one system and others from another into their training plan. But where is that leading us as a country? What is the plan to make Canada an international contender? We seem to be lacking the unified vision that helped us achieve such success in the ‘80s.”

Local Horsepower

“One area in which Canada has really improved since the old days is in breeding high-quality horses,” Ishoy notes. “Back in those days, our top horses were all imported from Europe and the idea of establishing breeding programs in Canada was just beginning to take root. Now there are a number of Canadian breeders producing first-rate horses bred specifically for dressage. By virtue of geography and the sheer number of horses, Europe will always hold the advantage for shoppers of being able to see 20-30 top prospects within a couple of hours’ drive. That’s not going to happen in Canada, but there are definitely breeders I would look at here first, were I in the market for a young horse, before shopping overseas.”

Ishoy’s wish list for the future includes coaches and riders continuing to support local competitions and world-class facilities such as the Caledon Equestrian Park, which hosted dressage at the 2015 Pan Am Games. “So many coaches and their students spend all winter training and competing in Florida now,” she says. “By the time summer in Canada rolls around, many have spent their competition budget already or don’t feel the need to compete here, and that’s a problem for Canadian show organizers and competitors. Getting enough entries at those shows is crucial if we want to have world-class facilities in Canada, and the ability to host international competitions like CDIs, the Pan Am Games, or maybe even the World Championships again someday. That’s something I would love to see.”